Archive for the ‘Regulation’ Category.

Window Dressing

Fed's reverse repo activity in Treasuries with major banks.  When I was on the corporate staff of a large conglomerate, we eventually busted one of our divisions for pushing inventory out the door on the last day of the quarter, only to have most of it returned a few days later, all as a way to boost quarterly revenues.  This appears to be the bankers' equivalent of such channel-stuffing.

Reverse Repo

 

Are the Feds really fooled by artificial quarter-end liquidity that is provided by the Feds themselves?  The stress-tests remind me of the story about FDR declaring a bank holiday, and claiming to have allowed only the strong banks to reopen the next day.  How did they know which were strong and weak?  They didn't, really.  The whole exercise was a PR ploy to boost consumer confidence in the banking industry.

Update:  Yep, there it all goes back where it came from

Reverse Repo April 1 2014

Apparently, Los Angeles Has Banned Oil Production in the City

Most folks who talk about oil production know very little about it.  One reality of oil production, particularly for older fields like those around Los Angeles, is that oil wells have to be frequently reworked to maintain such production  (fracking, by the way, is one of those rework techniques and has been used for over 50 years).  By  banning well rework and re-injection of water (most fluid flowing from older wells is water), the city council has effectively banned oil production.

The linked article is a good reminder of a technique used by many environmental activists.  Despite portraying themselves as being driven by science, they actually often make progress by taking words and both obscuring their meaning and adding emotional baggage to them.  Such is the case with "fracking"

Because with its pun-friendly name, the term fracking has become an effective nonspecific rallying point for extreme activist groups aiming to scare the public about environmental harms that have yet to be demonstrated. Amid the cheering after the vote, some of the national activists behind the effort acknowledged the true goal behind measure. The term fracking, it seems, is actually intended to be a catch-all phrase to describe all aspects of oil and gas production, conventional and unconventional alike, according to Washington-based Food and Water Watch, one of the activist groups behind the measure. In an interview with online publication Streetsblog Los Angeles after the vote, FWW organizer Brenna Norton boldly stated as much when she acknowledged, “It’s easier to engage and organize people around ‘fracking’ than a complicated list of practices.”

Baptist and Bootlegger

I can't think of a better illustration of the "bootlegger and Baptist" coalition supporting prohibition than the case of California state senator Leland Yee.  By day, he was one of the most outspoken advocates of gun control.  By night, he was apparently trafficking in illegal weapons.

Smuggling only earns high rents if the underlying goods are illegal.  Who ever heard of cucumber smugglers, or dealers in the illegal cat 5 cable trade?  Every time Leland Yee took another action to make guns harder to own in California, he not only got pats on the back from gun control "baptists" on the Left, but he also made his criminal friends more money.

Occupational Licensing and Goldilocks

Don Boudreax has a good editorial up on occupational licensing

The first hint that the real goal of occupational licensing isn't to protect consumers' health and welfare is that far too many of the professions that are licensed pose practically zero risks to ordinary people. Among the professions that are licensed in various U.S. states are florists, hair braiders and casket sellers. What are the chances that consumers will be wounded by poorly arranged bouquets of flowers or that corpses will be made more dead by defective caskets?

The real goal of occupational licensing is to protect not consumers, but incumbent suppliers. Most occupational-licensing schemes require entrants into a trade to pass exams — exams designed and graded by representatives of incumbent suppliers....

But what about more “significant” professions, such as doctors and lawyers?

The case for licensing these professions is no stronger than is the case for licensing florists and hair braiders. The reasons are many. Here are just two.

First, precisely because medical care and legal counsel are especially important services, it's especially important that competition to supply these services be as intense as possible. If the price of flowers is unnecessarily high or the quality poor, that's unfortunate but hardly tragic. Not so for the prices and quality of the services of doctors and lawyers.

Too high a price for medical visits will cause too many people to resort to self-diagnosis and self-medication. Too high a price for legal services will cause too many people to write their own wills or negotiate their own divorce settlements. Getting matters wrong on these fronts can be quite serious.

Won't, though, the absence of licensing allow large numbers of unqualified doctors and lawyers to practice? No.

People are not generally stupid when spending their own money on themselves and their loved ones. Without government licensing, people will demand — and other people will supply — information on different physicians and attorneys. Websites and smartphone apps will be created that, for a small fee, collect and distribute unbiased information on doctors and lawyers. People in need of medical care or legal advice will be free to consult this information and to use it as they, rather than some distant bureaucrat, choose

One thing I think sometimes gets lost -- the critique of licensing often focuses on where licensing is too restrictive - e.g. hair braiding or taxis or simple medical procedures.

But it is just as likely to fail because it is insufficiently restrictive. People will always say to me that they certainly want their brain surgeon to be a licensed physician, implying that licensing is appropriate for certain extreme skills. But would you really choose a brain surgeon merely because he or she was licensed? I would do a ton of research in choosing a brain surgeon, research that would go well beyond their having managed to pass some tests 20 years ago.

The same applies for restaurants - my standards go way beyond whether they have a 3 basin cleanup sink and have sufficiently high temperatures in their dishwasher.

The criteria for licensing is never "just right". Either it is too restrictive and eliminates competition that would provide me value; or else it is insufficiently stringent such that I have to perform the same due diligence I would have in the absence of any licensing regime (though perhaps with less robust tools since licensing likely stunts development of such consumer tools). And even if it happened to be well-calibrated for me, it will not be well-calibrated for my neighbor who will have a different set of criteria and preferences.

Obama's Demand for Wage Rules for Salaried Workers Will Have Far More Impact Than Proposed Minimum Wage Changes

The $10.10 minimum wage discussion has gotten a lot of attention.   But in 2011 only 3.8 million workers made at or below the minimum wage, and of these, at least half earn substantially more in reality through tips.

Obama's announcement yesterday that he wanted to substantially change the way salaried workers will likely have far more negative impacts on employment than his minimum wage proposals.

President Barack Obama is expected to order a rule change this week that would require employers to pay overtime to a larger number of salaried workers, two people familiar with the matter said.

Currently, many businesses aren't required to pay overtime to certain salaried workers if they earn more than $455 a week, a level that was set in 2004 and comes to roughly $24,000 a year. The White House is expected to direct the Labor Department to raise that salary threshold, though it is unclear by how much.

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the liberal Economic Policy Institute, and Jared Bernstein, a former White House economist, recently proposed the limit be increased to $984 a week, or roughly $50,000 a year.

"That would mean between five- and 10-million people could be affected, but they might choose a lower number," Mr. Eisenbrey said about the White House plans.

5-10 million is potentially 3x or more the people affected by a minimum wage change.  But in some sense, this still underestimates the impact.  Here is one example.  Last year the average starting salary of college graduates is about $45,000.  The median is likely lower.  This means that over half of all college graduates going into the work force will be taking hourly jobs that used to be salaried.   Teachers will be hourly.  Budget analysts will be hourly.  Etc.

So all these folks are saying - Yeah!  I get overtime!   Wrong.  They will be eligible for overtime.  But companies will quickly restructure their work processes to make sure no one works overtime.  And since their new hires are working just a straight 40 hours (with mandatory unpaid lunch break time in CA), they will likely pay less.   If I am paying $40,000 a year for someone who will work extra hours for me, I am not going to pay that amount to someone just punching a time clock.  And the whole psychological relationship is changed - a salaried person is someone on the management team.  A person punching a timeclock may not be treated the same way.

Further, when someone gets switched from salary to hourly, they lose a minimum pay guarantee.  When I get a $3,500 a month offer, I know that no matter how slow things are, until I am fired I get $3500 a month.  There is a floor on my earnings.  As an hourly worker, my hours can be adjusted up or down constantly.  There is no floor at all.

Oh, and by the way, remember Obamacare?  The PPACA penalizes companies who do not provide a health plan that meets certain (expensive) criteria.  But that penalty is not applied for workers who are "part-time" or work less than 30 hours a week.  Salaried workers are automatically full time.  But once you convert all those people to hourly and make sure they are working no more than 40 hours a week, is it really so large a step to getting them under 30 hours a week?

PS-  Well, for those who think schools assign too much homework, this could well be the end of homework.  The most dangerous possible thing with hourly workers is to give them the ability to assign themselves unlimited overtime.  Teachers could do this at home with grading papers.  If I were a school, I would ban teachers from doing any grading or schoolwork prep at home -- after all, it's hourly and probably overtime and they could work unlimited hours at home and how would you get it under control?  The only way to manage it would be to ban it entirely.

PPS- What about travel?  Would you ever let workers paid hourly travel?  You would have to pay all the travel time and maybe part of the hotel time and there would be huge potential for ending up with overtime bills so better to just ban travel all together.  I know this seems knee-jerk to ban something that might impose a lot of extra labor costs seems extreme, but just look at California.  In California, employees have the right to a half-hour lunch break without work.  They can work through lunch if they choose, but courts have imposed enough onerous reporting standards around this that most companies (like mine) have just banned working through lunch.  It is a firing offense in my company, and in many others in CA, to be caught working during lunch.  We are going to see the same thing working from home.  In fact, we already see this, as there are class actions right now against companies who provided employees with cell phones saying that giving them a cell phone put them "on call" and subject to overtime hours that had to paid at home.  Companies are now making it a firing offense to take one's company cell phone home.

Sorry this post is so disorganized, but this initiative caught be by surprise and I have not been thinking about it for very long.  I will try to work out a more rigorous article in the next few weeks.

The Regulation Singularity

Yesterday, I came home exhausted.  I have been working late nearly every night for weeks, at a time of year when most of my business is not even open yet (the business is seasonal).  I realized to my immense depression that I have been spending all my time on regulatory compliance.  I have not been pitching new clients or bidding on new prospects or making investments or improving our customer service processes -- though I have ideas for all of these.  I have been 100% dedicated through 14 hour days to just trying to keep up with and adapt to changing government rules.

Break rules, changing minimum wages, heat stress plans, mandatory sexual harassment training, OSHA reporting, EEO reporting, Census reporting, and most recently changing rules on salaried workers that Obama just waived his wand and imposed -- this is what has been consuming me.  I have been trying to roll out a new safety program to the field and can't do it because I keep having to train for one of these new requirements (one learns there is only a limited number of things one can simultaneously roll out to front-line staff).

At some point regulation will accrete so fast that it will be impossible to keep up.  I am going to call that the Regulation Singularity, and for businesses my size, we are fast approaching it.

Prominent libertarian think tanks often rank state business climate by their tax regimes.  I am all for low, sensibly-structured taxes.  But for most of my time, taxes are irrelevant.  We are shutting down businesses left and right in California and it has zero to do with taxes.

Speaking of Crazy Labor Laws

Business gets held liable for the unpaid wages of the previous tenant of the building they are using.

An employer that acquired the assets of a defunct bar and restaurant and continued to operate a restaurant on the same premises was liable for unpaid wages owed to the defunct restaurant’s former employees, the Oregon Supreme Court has ruled. Blachana LLC v. Bureau of Labor and Industries, No. S060789 (Ore. Jan. 16, 2014).

Reversing the Oregon Court of Appeals, the Court found that the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) did not err in deciding the employer was a successor for state wage liability purposes because it conducted “essentially the same business as conducted by the predecessor,” even though it did not employ any of the predecessor’s employees.

I Am Guessing San Francisco Doesn't Provide Any Liability Protection For Employers In Exchange For This

San Francisco has put deep restrictions employers' ability to check the criminal records of people they hire.  Yesterday the Senate blocked the nomination of Debo Adegbile to run the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department.  Senators were concerned about his actions as defense attorney for a man convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer.  Honestly, I have no problem with defense attorneys going to extremes to defend their clients.  I was more concerned with his historic support for ideas like this one in San Francisco:

Private sector employers in the City of San Francisco will have to comply with new “ban the box” legislation restricting questions about applicants’ criminal records on applications for employment and during job interviews.

The Fair Chance Ordinance, No. 17-14, prohibits employers with at least 20 employees from inquiring about a job applicant’s criminal history on an employment application, including “checking the box” to indicate criminal convictions or other criminal justice system involvement. It also prohibits covered employers from asking about criminal history during an initial interview. The law applies not only to regular employees, but also those performing contracted or contingent work, or working through a temporary agency. The Ordinance becomes operative on August 13, 2014.

After the initial interview, the Ordinance prohibits the employer from asking the applicant about the following:

  • arrests that did not result in conviction, unless charges remain pending;
  • completion of a diversion program;
  • sealed or juvenile offenses;
  • offense s that are more than seven years old from the date of sentencing; and
  • offenses that are not misdemeanors or felonies, such as infractions.

The employer must provide the applicant with a written notice before making any inquiry into the applicant’s criminal history and display a poster in the workplace developed by the City’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE).

The Ordinance also restricts an employer’s ability to consider criminal history disclosed by an applicant. The information may be used in the selection process only if it has “a direct and specific negative bearing on that person’s ability to perform the duties or responsibilities necessarily related to the employment position.”

This is just stupid.  First, I cannot tell you how many government forms (e.g. corporate registrations) require me to report my criminal background -- this is outright hypocrisy, holding private employers to  a different standard than public agencies.  If they really are consistent, truly believing that criminal background checks are discriminatory because they have disparate impact, then they should be pushing to remove them for things like gun ownership.  Anyone really believe they will do this?

The bigger issue for businesses is that we don't make these checks because we are jerks, we make them for real financial reasons.  Specifically, we are worried about the health and safety of our employees and customers.  And for those that think that business owners are all evil and wouldn't care about such things, then we certainly care about getting sued for the actions of our employees.  As a business owner I have been made, particularly in California, responsible for any dumbass thing my employees do.  I will get sued if these employees do something wrong.  And worse, can you just see the trial -- plaintiff's attorney is going to be in front of the jury and say things like "this employee has a long criminal record and defendant did not even check, he did not even care about my client's safety."

Wherein My Schadenfreude Takes on My Ideological Purity

Despite the title, I should make it clear that I oppose the proposed legislation in Arizona to allow warrant-less searches of  abortion clinics.  The stated justification for the law is to ensure safety and healthy conditions at clinics, but the law is transparently about harassing a particular type of business.

However,  I must admit I get some schadenfreude from this.  Supporters of the bill say that they are only extending the current standards applied to many other businesses, such as restaurants and bars, to abortion clinics.

Regulators from OSHA to the health department have tremendous powers to barge into private businesses and conduct searches without a warrant, whatever the text of the Fourth Amendment might say.  They justify this with licensing regimes that require these businesses to have state licenses, and then require businesses accept these extra-Constitutional searches as a prerequisite for the license.

I have opposed these licensing regimes for years, in part because the consumer protection justification is often a sham -- what they really want is to be able to exercise control of private businesses.  In some cases, these laws are used to protect incumbents.  In some cases (e.g. here) they are used to try to shut down the entire (legal) industry.

Statists on the Left have generally poo-pooed these concerns.  Their typical response is that businesses are just whining, and that only those in violation of the law have something to fear.  Now, they suddenly are recognizing that an unannounced search per se is threatening.

Update:  I find abortion proponents on the Left to be among the worst examples of faux libertarians.  They claim their issue is about choice regarding one's body, but then tend to simultaneously support all kinds of government interventions in personal medical decision-making.  They are all for the sanctity of private property when there is an abortion clinic on the site;  not so much otherwise.

Is Occupational Licensing Meant to Block Competition from Ethnic Minorities?

Looking at this map of state licensing regimes (darker is more onerous, with AZ being the worst), it is hard to correlate with states being Republican or Democrat.  That doesn't surprise me, because I have always thought the urge to restrict competition and protect incumbents has always been a bipartisan enterprise.

click to enlarge

 

So I sat and thought for a minute about my home state of AZ.  Why is it the worst?  We have a pretty good libertarian history here, from Goldwater onwards.  We have at least one fairly libertarian Senator (Jeff Flake).  So what is the deal?

My hypothesis is that it is related to immigration.  The same majority Republican legislators who are generally open to free markets simultaneously have an incredible fear and loathing of immigration.  Perhaps our onerous business licensing regime is driven by nativists wanting to protect themselves from competition by new immigrants, immigrants who would struggle to compete onerous licensing requirements?

So what does this map look like vs. immigrant population density?  Via Wikipedia, here are the states on density of Hispanics

click to enlarge

 

Hmm, we might be getting somewhere, but its not a perfect fit.  So instead, let's hypothesize that business licensing is aimed at non-white, non-hispanic groups in general (similar to early justifications for the minimum wage as a way to keep black workers migrating from the south out of traditionally "white" jobs).  I cannot get it by state, but the map below by county looks pretty dang similar to the licensing map.  Areas in blue have above average percent of non-whites, red is below average.

Not a perfect fit certainly (one would expect Texas to be more onerous), but perhaps close enough to treat the hypothesis seriously.  I had always thought that I would be the last one to play the race card in a policy analysis, but business licensing tends to have an inherently base motive (protect one group from competition from another group) that is pretty easy to square with racial and ethnic fear.

 

Yet Another Absurd Obamacare-Related Requirement: Business Oaths

This is just sick, via Fox News and Bryan Preston

Consider what administration officials announcing the new exemption for medium-sized employers had to say about firms that might fire workers to get under the threshold and avoid hugely expensive new requirements of the law. Obama officials made clear in a press briefing that firms would not be allowed to lay off workers to get into the preferred class of those businesses with 50 to 99 employees. How will the feds know what employers were thinking when hiring and firing? Simple. Firms will be required to certify to the IRS – under penalty of perjury – that ObamaCare was not a motivating factor in their staffing decisions. To avoid ObamaCare costs you must swear that you are not trying to avoid ObamaCare costs. You can duck the law, but only if you promise not to say so.

As I have written about before, our company closed some California operations in December and laid off all the employees.  As with most business closures, we had multiple reasons for the closure.  The biggest problems were the local regulatory issues in Ventura County that made it impossible to make even simple improvements to the facilities.  But certainly looking ahead at costs soon to be imposed due to looming California minimum wage increases and the employer mandate contributed to the decision.

So, did I fire the workers over Obamacare?  If Obamacare were, say, 10% of the cause, would I be lying if I said I did not fire workers over Obamacare?  Or does it need to be 51% of the cause?  Or 1%?    Or 90%.  Business decisions are seldom based on single variables.  I am just exhausted with having my life run by people whose only experience with the real world was sitting in policy seminars at college.

Update:  The actual effect of this will not likely be to change business behavior, but change how they talk about it.  Worried that there will be too many stories next election about job losses due to Obamacare, the Administration is obviously cooking up ways not to limit the job losses, but to limit discussion of them.

A Small Bit of Good News -- DC Circuits Slaps Down the IRS

The creeping regulatory / corporate state gets a setback

Faulting the IRS for attempting to “unilaterally expand its authority,” the D.C. Circuit today affirmed a district court decision tossing out the agency’s tax-preparer licensing program. Under the program, all paid tax-return preparers, hitherto unregulated, were required to pass a certification exam, pay annual fees to the agency, and complete 15 hours of continuing education each year.

The program, of course, had been backed by the major national tax-return preparers, chiefly as a way of driving up compliance costs for smaller rivals and pushing home-based “kitchen table” preparers out of business. Dan Alban of the Institute for Justice, lead counsel to the tax preparers challenging the program,called the decision “a major victory for tax preparers—and taxpayers—nationwide.”

The licensing program was not only a classic example of corporate cronyism, but also of agency overreach. IRS relied on an 1884 statute empowering it to “regulate the practice of representatives or persons before [it].” Prior to 2011, IRS had never claimed that the statute gave it authority to regulate preparers. Indeed, in 2005, an IRS official testified that preparers fell outside of the law’s reach.

Perhaps a first indication that the Obama Administration strategy to pack the DC Circuit with Obama appointees may not necessarily protect his executive overreach.

PS - you gotta love the IJ.

PPS - The IRS justified its actions under "an obscure 1884 statute governing the representatives of Civil War soldiers seeking compensation for dead horses"

Gee, I Wonder Why US Business Investment Is Sluggish?

From Jon Gabriel:

Trader Joe’s wanted to build a new store in Portland, Oregon. Instead of heading to a tony neighborhood downtown or towards the suburbs, the popular West Coast grocer chose a struggling area of Northeast Portland.

The company selected two acres along Martin Luther King Blvd. that had been vacant for decades. It seemed like the perfect place to create jobs, improve customer options and beautify the neighborhood. City officials, the business community, and residents all seemed thrilled with the plan. Then some community organizers caught wind of it.

The fact that most members of the Portland African-American Leadership Forum didn’t live in the neighborhood was beside the point. “This is a people’s movement for African-Americans and other communities, for self-determination,” member Avel Gordly said in a press conference. Even the NAACP piled on, railing against the project as a “case study in gentrification.” (The area is about 25 percent African-American.)

After a few months of racially tinged accusations and angry demands, Trader Joe’s decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. “We run neighborhood stores and our approach is simple,” a corporate statement said. “If a neighborhood does not want a Trader Joe's, we understand, and we won't open the store in question.”

Hours after Trader Joe’s pulled out, PAALF leaders arrived at a previously scheduled press conference trying to process what just happened. The group re-issued demands that the now-cancelled development include affordable housing, mandated jobs based on race, and a small-business slush fund. Instead, the only demand being met is two fallow acres and a lot of anger from the people who actually live nearby.

How Regulators Strangle Legal Businesses

Apparently the Feds are using banking regulation to strangle businesses, even legal ones, that they don't like by cutting off their access to the banking system (via Overlawyered).

Wall Street Journal reporter Robin Sidel, along with Andrew Johnson, reported on the success that the federal government is having in barring access to the banking system for a number of businesses. As we've discussed previously, "Operation Choke Point" and related arm-twisting efforts by the Feds are aimed at making life difficult for a variety of targeted businesses. Among those disfavored businesses are online lenders, payday lenders, check cashers, virtual currency dealers, gaming businesses, and marijuana-related businesses (although our beloved US Attorney General has been making noises that he simply will look the other way when it comes to enforcing federal drug laws against marijuana businesses that are operating legally under state law)....

In the article and a companion audio interview, Sidel states that the primary concern appears to be with the difficulty of complying with BSA and money laundering risk. While that's certainly true with many of the businesses, it's also true that some of the businesses have been targeted by the regulators for extra scrutiny because they're in a line of business, like payday lending, where the regulators simply don't like the business model on social policy grounds. If we see the Feds back off of weed but still keep the heat on payday lenders, then the argument that it's all about money laundering risk becomes a bit tenuous.

EPA Enhancing Its Power with Sue and Settle

Congress has ceded far, far too much legislative power to Administration agencies like the EPA.  The only check that exists for that power is process -- regulators have to go through fairly elaborate and lengthy steps, including several full stops to publish draft rules and collect public comment.  A lot of garbage gets through this process, but at least the worst can be halted by a public or Congressional outcry to draft rules.

But like most government officials, regulators resent having any kind of check on their power.  Just like police look for ways to conduct searches without warrants, and even the President looks for ways to rule without Congress, the EPA wants to regulate unfettered by public comment process.

The EPA has found a clever and totally scary way around this.  In short, they collude with a friendly environmental group which sues the EPA seeking certain rules that the EPA believes to be too controversial to survive the regulatory process.  The EPA settles with the friendly group, and a consent decree is issued imposing the new rules, entirely bypassing any rules-making or public comment process.  The EPA then pretends that they were "forced" into these new rules, and as a kicker, the taxpayer funds the whole thing by making large payoffs to the environmental group who initiated the suit part of the settlement.  Larry Bell describes the process:

“Sue and settle “ practices, sometimes referred to as “friendly lawsuits”, are cozy deals through which far-left radical environmental groups file lawsuits against federal agencies wherein  court-ordered “consent decrees” are issued based upon a prearranged settlement agreement they collaboratively craft together in advance behind closed doors. Then, rather than allowing the entire process to play out, the agency being sued settles the lawsuit by agreeing to move forward with the requested action both they and the litigants want.

And who pays for this litigation? All-too-often we taxpayers are put on the hook for legal fees of both colluding parties. According to a 2011 GAO report, this amounted to millions of dollars awarded to environmental organizations for EPA litigations between 1995 and 2010. Three “Big Green” groups received 41% of this payback, with Earthjustice accounting for 30 percent ($4,655,425).  Two other organizations with histories of lobbying for regulations EPA wants while also receiving agency funding are the American Lung Association (ALA) and the Sierra Club.

In addition, the Department of Justice forked over at least $43 million of our money defending EPA in court between 1998 and 2010. This didn’t include money spent by EPA for their legal costs in connection with those rip-offs because EPA doesn’t keep track of their attorney’s time on a case-by-case basis.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has concluded that Sue and Settle rulemaking is responsible for many of EPA’s “most controversial, economically significant regulations that have plagued the business community for the past few years”. Included are regulations on power plants, refineries, mining operations, cement plants, chemical manufacturers, and a host of other industries. Such consent decree-based rulemaking enables EPA to argue to Congress: “The court made us do it.”

Another Possible Reason for Obama's Minimum Wage Push

Obama's minimum wage push could be an honest attempt to reduce poverty, but since only a trivial percentage of the American work force earns the minimum wage, and most of those are in starter jobs rather than trying to support a family, it does not make a lot of sense.

On the other hand, it could be another cynical payoff to unions that form the backbone of Obama's political support

Organized labor's instantaneous support for President Obama's recent proposal to hike the minimum wage doesn't make much sense at first glance. The average private-sector union member—at least one who still has a job—earns $22 an hour according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's a far cry from the current $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage, or the $9 per hour the president has proposed. Altruistic solidarity with lower-paid workers isn't the reason for organized labor's cheerleading, either.

The real reason is that some unions and their members directly benefit from minimum wage increases—even when nary a union member actually makes the minimum wage.

The Center for Union Facts analyzed collective-bargaining agreements obtained from the Department of Labor's Office of Labor-Management Standards. The data indicate that a number of unions in the service, retail and hospitality industries peg their base-line wages to the minimum wage.

The Labor Department's collective-bargaining agreements file has a limited number of contracts available, so we were unable to determine how widespread the practice is. But the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union says that pegging its wages to the federal minimum is commonplace. On its website, the UFCW notes that "oftentimes, union contracts are triggered to implement wage hikes in the case of minimum wage increases." Such increases, the UFCW says, are "one of the many advantages of being a union member."

The labor contracts that we examined used a variety of methods to trigger the increases. The two most popular formulas were setting baseline union wages as a percentage above the state or federal minimum wage or mandating a flat wage premium above the minimum wage.

Our Business's Response to California $2 Minimum Wage Increase

Well, we have completed our response to minimum wage increases in California.   As a review, California is raising its minimum wage from $8 to $10 (or 25%)  in two steps starting this July 1.  I will confess that in some of these cases the causes are complex, and are not just due to minimum wage changes but also other creeping California regulatory issues (particularly the first two).

  • Suspended operation and closed on large campground in Ventura County that employed about 25 people
  • Suspended investment / expansion plans at two other campgrounds
  • Raised prices everywhere else, on average adding $3 to a $20 camping fee.   (this is inevitable when wages are increased 25% in a business where more than half the costs are tied to wages and margins are around 5%)

The only reason I take the time to write this is that I think this tends to demonstrate that 1) minimum wage increases can have a real economic impact and 2) just looking at job losses after the date the wage takes effect can miss most of this economic impact.

To this latter point, a lot of the impact is not necessarily job losses.  We see lost investment, which perhaps means fewer jobs in the future but there is no way to measure that.  We see price increases, which affects consumers and disposable income.  And we see some job losses, but note that the job losses were 6 months before the law goes into effect.

We are left with a certainty that the minimum wage had a real economic effect but a suspicion that, at least in this case, that effect would not be measured.

By the way, there may also be a lesson here for those who believe that the entire problem in the economy is one of not enough aggregate demand.  In the last month I walked away from a million dollars a year of demand, because it was impossible to serve profitably, in large part due to regulatory issues.

Coyote in the News

I have a couple of quotes in this article on the difficulty of doing business in California.

On the same topic, Megan McArdle quoted extensively from my post on leaving Ventura County, and has some comments of her own.

Entirely Predictable Unintended Consequences -- San Francisco Rental Market

There should be a word for "entirely predictable unintended consequences".  The Germans have come up with some good words for complex ideas, like schadenfreude, so maybe we can outsource the task to them.

Anyway, I just finished a book called Season of the Witch, about San Francisco in the 1960's and 1970's.   Churchill once said that “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume” and I am reminded of this quote when reading about San Francisco in these two decades.  Written by a Progressive sympathetic to San Francisco's bleeding leftist edge (the author cannot mention Ronald Reagan without also expressing his disdain), it is never-the-less pretty hard-hitting when things go off the rails (e.g. the enablement of Jim Jones by the entire leftist power structure).

Much of the narrative is about the great influx of lost youth and seekers of alternative lifestyles into the city; the attendant social, crime, and drug issues this created; and a quest for tolerance and social peace.   As such, it is not a book about political or economic policy per se, it's more about the people involved.  But we do get glimpses of the policies that key players like Harvey Milk, Dianne Feinstein, and Willie Brown were advocating.

What struck me most were the policies these folks on the Progressive Left had on housing.  They had three simultaneous policy goals:

  1. Limit San Francisco from building upward (taller).  San Francisco is a bit like Manhattan in that the really desirable part where everyone wants to live is pretty small.  There was (and I suppose still is) a desire by landowners to build taller buildings, to house more people on the same bit of  valuable land.  Progressives (along with many others across the political spectrum) were fighting to have the city prevent this increased density as a threat to San Francisco's "character".
  2. Reduce population density in existing buildings.  Progressive reformers were seeking to get rid of crazy-crowded rooming houses like those in Chinatown
  3. Control and cap rents.  This was the "next thing" that Harvey Milk, for example, was working on just before he was shot -- bringing rent controls to San Francisco.

My first thought was to wonder how a person could hold these three goals in mind without recognizing the inevitable consequences, but I guess it's that cognitive dissonance that keeps socialism alive.   But it should not be hard to figure out what the outcome should be of combining: a) some of the most desirable real estate in the country with b) an effective cap on density and thus capacity and c) caps on rents.  Rental housing is going to be shifted to privately owned units (coops and condos) and prices of those are going to skyrocket.  You are going to end up with real estate only the rich can afford to purchases and a shortage of rental properties at any price.  Those people with grandfathered controlled rents will be stuck there, without any mobility.

So I was reading this the other day.  It turns out there is a severe shortage of affordable rental properties in San Francisco, and lately there have been a record number of conversions of rental properties to private ownership.

With the area economy rebounding, San Francisco is in the midst of a housing crisis as many residents are evicted from their apartments. With rents strictly regulated, an increasing number of San Francisco owners are getting out of the rental business and cashing out their properties to turn them into co-ops. Steven Greenhut argues that rent control actually forces prices upward, especially over the long term, by diminishing the supply of available rental housing.

Update:  One recurring theme through the book is that progressive elements in SF saw their government and particularly their police force as "bullies".  They used this term a lot -- and they were right.  So it is interesting today to see all these progressives and how they act with power.  Turns out, they are all bullies too, just on different issues.

By the way, the Dirty Harry movies are way more interesting after reading this book.  Season of the Witch is what all this looked like to a progressive.  The Dirty Harry movies are what the same events looked like from a different perspective.

It's All About Control

I can't think of any justification for the FDA's shutdown of 23andme's genetic testing service except one of pure control.  It is yet another case where you and I are not smart enough or sophisticated enough to be trusted with information about our own bodies.  Because we might use the information in some way with which Maya Shankar might not agree.

Let me be clear, I am not offended by all regulation of genetic tests. Indeed, genetic tests are already regulated. To be precise, the labs that perform genetic tests are regulated by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) as overseen by the CMS (here is an excellent primer). The CLIA requires all labs, including the labs used by 23andMe, to be inspected for quality control, record keeping and the qualifications of their personnel. The goal is to ensure that the tests are accurate, reliable, timely, confidential and not risky to patients. I am not offended when the goal of regulation is to help consumers buy the product that they have contracted to buy.

What the FDA wants to do is categorically different. The FDA wants to regulate genetic tests as a high-riskmedical device that cannot be sold until and unless the FDA permits it be sold.

Moreover, the FDA wants to judge not the analytic validity of the tests, whether the tests accurately read the genetic code as the firms promise (already regulated under the CLIA) but the clinical validity, whether particular identified alleles are causal for conditions or disease. The latter requirement is the death-knell for the products because of the expense and time it takes to prove specific genes are causal for diseases. Moreover, it means that firms like 23andMe will not be able to tell consumers about their own DNA but instead will only be allowed to offer a peek at the sections of code that the FDA has deemed it ok for consumers to see.

Alternatively, firms may be allowed to sequence a consumer’s genetic code and even report it to them but they will not be allowed to tell consumers what the letters mean. Here is why I think the FDA’s actions are unconstitutional. Reading an individual’s code is safe and effective. Interpreting the code and communicating opinions about it may or may not be safe–just like all communication–but it falls squarely under the First Amendment.

I know that libertarians want to kill the FDA altogether.  That is never going to happen.  But what might be more realistic is to shift their governing law from validating that medical treatments are safe and effective to just safe.

Brad Warbiany has more, including real life examples of how 23andme's service has been useful to his family.

@kdrum Missing the Point. Doctors May Control the Cartel, but Government Gives it Power.

The other day, Kevin Drum wrote a post wondering why we had so few doctors per capital in the United States and observing, reasonably, that this might be one reason to explain why physician compensation rates were higher here than in other countries.

He and Matt Yglesisus argued that this smaller number of doctors and higher compensation rates were due to a physician-operated cartel.  This is a proposition I and most libertarians would agree with.  In fact I, and many others apparently, wrote to him saying yes there is a cartel, but ironically it owed its existence to government interventionism in the economy and health care.  In a true free market, such a cartel would only have value so long as it added value to consumers.

Drum seems to have missed the point.  In this post, he reacts to themany commenters who said that government power was at the heart of the cartel by saying no, it's not the government because doctors control the nuts and bolts decisions of the cartel.  Look!  Doctors are in all the key positions in the key organizations that control the cartel!

Well, no sh*t.  Of course they are.   Just as lawyers occupy all the key slots in the ABA.  But neither the ABA nor these doctors cartels would have nearly the power that they have if it were not for government laws that give them that power (e.g. giving the ABA and AMA monopoly power over licensing and school credentialing).  I had never heard of the RUC before, which apparently controls internship slots, but its ability to exercise this control seems pretty tied to the billions in government money of which it controls the distribution.

Let's get out of medicine for a second.  I am sure Best Buy wishes it had some mechanism to control new entrants into its business.  Theoretically (and it may have even done this) it could form the Association of Bricks and Mortar Electronics Retailers (ABMER).  It could even stake a position that it did not think consumers should shop at upstarts who are not ABMER members.  Take that Amazon!  Of course, without any particular value proposition to do so, consumers are likely to ignore the ABMER and go buy at Amazon.com anyway.

Such cartel schemes are tried all the time, and generally fail (the one exception I wonder about is the Visa/Mastercard consortium, but that is for another post).  Anyway, the only way the ABMER would really work is if some sort of government licensing law were passed that required anyone selling consumer electronics to be ABMER members.  And my guess is that the ABMER might not invite Amazon.com to join.  All of a sudden, Amazon is out of the electronics business.  Or maybe it just gets forced to deliver all its product through Best Buy stores, for a fee of course.

Crazy stupid, huh?  The government would never write licensing laws to protect a small group of incumbent retailers, right?  Well, tell that to Elon Musk.  Tesla has been trying for years to bring its cars to consumers in innovative ways, but have time and again run up against state auto dealership laws that effectively force all cars to be sold through the state dealer cartel.  Or you can talk to California wine growers, who have tried for years to sell directly to consumers in other states but get forced into selling through the state liquor wholesaler cartels.

All these cartels are controlled and manned by the industry, but they are enforced -- they are given their teeth -- by the government.

Here are a few off-the-top-of-my-head examples of cartel actions in the medical field admittedly initiated and supported and administered by doctors, that are enforced by state and federal law:

  • Certificate of need laws prevent hospitals from expanding or adding new equipment without government permission.  The boards in this process are usually stacked with the most powerful local hospitals, who use the law to prevent competition and keep prices high.  This is a great example where Drum could say that the decisions are essentially being made by hospitals.  Yes they are, but they only have the power to do so because the government that grants them this licensing power over competitive capacity.  Without this government backing, new hospitals would just laugh at them.
  • Government licensing laws let the AMA effectively write the criteria for licencing doctors, which are kept really stringent to keep the supply low.  Even if I wanted to only put in stitches all day to busted up kids, I would still have to go through 8 years of medical school and residency. Drum and Yglesias focus on the the number of medical schools and residencies.  I do not know if these are an issue or not.  But what clearly is an issue is the fact that one has to endure 8 expensive years or more just to be able to hand out birth control or stitch up a skinned knee.
  • Government licensing laws help doctors fight a constant rearguard action against nurse practitioners and other less expensively trained folks who could easily do half or more of what doctors do today.
  • The FDA and prescription drug law not only helps pharma companies keep profits up, but also increases business to doctors as people have to have a prescription for certain drugs they could easily buy on their own (e.g birth control pills, antibiotics).
  • The government limits immigration and thus labor mobility, reducing the ability of doctors from other countries to move here.

I am sure there are more.

There is no denying that in the middle of every industry cartel are insiders who are maneuvering to increase the rents of the incumbent players.  In fact, I am sure that every industry has participants who dream about getting off the competitive treadmill and creating a nice industry cartel, and would be the first to sign up.  But none of these dreams are ever going to happen unless they are enabled by the coercive power of government.

Of course, the consistent answer is, well, we just have the wrong guys running things.  If we had the right guys, it would work great.  But this kind of co-option always happens.   Look at taxis and liquor license holders and the entire banking sector.  Five years ago I would bet that progressives thought they finally had that right guy in the administration.  And look what has happened.  Banking cronyism is as strong as ever.  Obama's signature health legislation is full of crony giveaways.  In 6 months the health insurers are going to be running the entire PPACA infrastructure to their own benefit.

update:  This post is verging on the "is cronyism capitalism's fault" argument.  Rather than go into that again, it is here.

Update #2:  Related

Arkansas orthodontist Ben Burris was hauled in front of the state dental board in September after dentists in northeast Arkansas complained that he was offering dental cleanings to the general public in his Braces by Burris orthodontics clinics. The price for dental cleanings was $98 for an adult and $68 for a child, which Burris has said is about half of what dentists in northeast Arkansas typically charge.

Burris said most of the patients who need cleanings don’t have a dentist, but are checked by one of the three orthodontists in his clinic. Also, Burris said he offered the service because it was good for his business and good for the public. Some of his competitors “have gone absolutely ballistic” over the price and complained to the board, Burris said.

MP: Of course, the Arkansas dental cartel has no basis to complain directly about the low prices for dental cleaning at Braces by Burris clinics, so they are instead complaining that the clinic’s low-cost teeth cleaning services violate the states Dental Practice Act, which prohibits orthodontists and other specialists from practicing “outside their specialty.”

Note Who Gets Exempted From This Regulation

The Feds are going to require seat belts on buses:

Beginning in November 2016, all new motorcoaches and some other large buses must be equipped by manufacturers with three-point lap-shoulder belts, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

Ahh, but there is an exemption

The rule doesn’t apply to school buses or city transit buses.

What do these two exempted categories have in common:  They mostly belong to governments (public schools or public transit agencies).  So the government comes up with an expensive new regulation, but exempts itself from it, applying it to only private operators (who own a minority of buses in the country).

Lesson: Don't Be the Last Merger in an Industry Consolidation

I was reading about the DOJ push back on the proposed American-US Airways merger.  It strikes me that you never want to be the last merger in an industry consolidation.  When the consolidation begins, say with 8 players, a merger -- even if it results in a very big company -- reduces the number of competitors from 8 to 7.  After a while, though, the later mergers are proposing to reduce the players from, say, 4 to 3.  This will look worse to the DOJ, who by this point in a consolidation may be feeling remorseful, in retrospect, that it let some of the earlier deals go unchallenged.  So the last deal gets to catch up / payback from the earlier deals.

I think this is in part what is happening with the American merger.  I don't have the data, but my sense is that earlier mergers (e.g. United and Continental) were far more problematic from an anti-trust standpoint.

Disclosure:  living in Phoenix, whose US Airways hub will likely get downsized or eliminated in the merger, my life will be worse likely if the merger is approved.   Executives swear Phoenix will remain a major hub but most residents here consider this a "If you like your hub you can keep it" type promise.

This Minimum Wage Conversation is Not a Hypothetical -- I Have It All The Time

Don Boudreax writes:

Here’s a project for all unemployed young people – say, ages 18 through 21 – in America today.  Go to a nearby supermarket or restaurant or lawn-care company or pet store and ask for a job at the minimum wage.  If you are denied, offer to work for $4.00 per hour.  The owner or manager will almost surely decline, saying that it’s against the law.

“Would you like to hire me at $4.00?” you ask.

“Well yes I would” is the answer you’re likely to get in reply.

“So, hire me at that wage.  I’m an adult, I’m sober, and I have no mental issues.  I’m willing to work for $4.00 per hour.”

“You don’t get it, kid.  I can’t hire you at that wage.  I’ll get fined, or worse.  Go away.”

“Ok, I’ll leave.  But no one – including you – will hire me at $7.25 per hour.  What am I supposed to do?”

“Look kid.  That’s your problem.  I’m sorry.  I don’t make the laws, but I gotta follow them.  Go away now.”

I know that this is a realistic scenario because I have this conversation with employees all the time.  Except in my case, applicants are generally not 18 years old but 70 years old.

A bit of background:  My company operates campground and other recreation areas mainly using retired people who live on-site in their own RV's.  Few of my 400+ employees are under 65 and several are over 90.

There are several reasons this conversation occurs:

  • As my employees get older, and perhaps sicker with various disabilities, their work slows down to the point that it falls under our productivity expectations.  Employees may come to me saying they want to stay busy but they know they don't work very fast but they would be happy to work for $5 or $4 an hour if they could just keep this job they love.  (There is a Federal law that allows waiving of minimum wages for disability situations.  We tried it -- once.  The paperwork was daunting and the approval came 7 months after the application -- 2 months after the seasonal employee had already gone home for the year).
  • Many people like to stay busy but face wage caps where they begin to lose their Social Security.  They want to keep their total income under the wage cap.  We try to create some jobs that require fewer hours so they can get their wages down that way, but in many cases we have a limited number of on-site living spots and a fixed amount of work such that each person occupying a living spot must do a certain amount of work to make sure it all gets done.  So at some point we can't give them fewer hours, and then they will ask for lower pay.

I frequently have to tell people I simply cannot pay them less.  They ask if they can sign a paper saying they want to be paid less, and I tell them something like "no, the law assumes you are a gullible rube and that I am evil and infinitely powerful so that if you sign a paper, it just means I forced you to do it."  Which is all true, that is exactly the logic of the law.

People look at me funny sometimes when I say the minimum wage law limits employee rights by putting a floor on what they may charge for their labor.  This is an odd way of putting it for them, because minimum wage laws are generally explained in the oppressor-oppressed model, but it makes perfect sense from my experience.

IRS Argues Your Tax Return is Just Like a Dead Horse

Normally this would be a good Friday story, but you can't always control when Washington is going to bring the crazy.

The Obama administration on Tuesday defended its effort to regulate the tax return preparation business for the first time in U.S. history, basing its case largely on a 19th century law dealing with horses lost or killed in the Civil War....

[the Obama Administration attorney] explained that the administration sees the "Horse Act of 1884" as providing ample authority for the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to regulate the tens of thousands of preparers who fill out millions of Americans' federal tax returns.

Here is the logic, such that it is

A post-war industry emerged of agents who would press war loss claims for a fee, usually a percentage of the claim collected. Soon, claim values were being fraudulently inflated.

In response, the government started regulating these intermediaries, barring unscrupulous ones and certifying honest ones as "enrolled agents," a title that is still used today by people who represent clients in matters before the IRS.

The IRS is arguing that tax return preparers represent their customers in much the same way that enrolled agents do, so the agency should be able to expand regulation to include preparers.

Note that tax preparers are not actually IRS enrolled agents, they just argue they are kind of sort of like them (in that they both deal with tax returns, I suppose).  But enrolled agents explicitly act as an intermediary between citizens and the government in disputes and claims.  This is not the role of tax preparers.  They merely charge a fee to fill out time-consuming and confusion paperwork.  My tax accountant has never once had any conversations with the IRS on my behalf, nor should he.  I would engage an attorney for that.